KARACHI: Is the lucrative accountancy profession in danger of falling prey to the WTO regime? A senior partner of a local accountancy firm, which is affiliated with the World's 'big four' , pondered for a while before answering: In immediate future NO; in the long term, perhaps YES.
Sooner or latter, WTO would open up the doors also to the services sector. Most knowledgeable professionals argue that the "free market" system would prevail and it was simply stupid to question the legality or legitimacy of the WTO as an institution. "It is better to prepare for the challenges ahead," he said.
In the accountancy services sector of the Saarc region, India is well positioned because of its abundance of accountants. There are nearly 115,000 chartered accountants in India. The country produces 6,000 to 8,000 chartered accountants every six months. By contrast, in the last 50 years, Pakistan has placed fewer than 4,000 chartered accountants on its members' register.
Bangladesh and Sri Lanka also runs short of accountants. "Since the salary structure is such that in India, a newly qualified, chartered accountants draws salary in the range of Rs8,000 to 10,000, compared to Rs25,000 to 30,000 in Pakistan, the Indian accountant may find it lucrative to flood the other markets in the region. But the partner of the accountancy firm said that there were unresolved issues that may block such entrance:
Pakistan has not signed off the treaty; countries in the region do not recognise each other's qualification certificates; an accountant wishing to work in Pakistan must have been resident for continuous period of six months; only a citizen of India can open up an accountancy firm in that country and a foreign qualified chartered accountant wishing to start independent practice in Pakistan must first qualify in two additional papers: Tax and companies' law.
And what about the law? Small firms or sole practitioners dominate the Pakistani legal market. Nevertheless, many of the firms fielding only several lawyers maintain formidable reputations. Two of Pakistan's oldest firms are based in Karachi: Orr, Dignam & Co and Surridge & Beecheno, both of which are full-service firms. Foreign law firms are permitted to open associated offices in Pakistan.
However, the present slow pace of investment and projects work are said to be the reasons that currently there are no European or US firms operating here. But a senior corporate lawyer affirmed that all major contracts, particularly undertaken with the Government in Pakistan, are governed by the English Law. He cited the Hubco agreement; contracts with Wapda and other major corporate firms. Interestingly, he blamed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for having closed the doors on foreign lawyers for appearing in court cases in Pakistan.
"It was in the Wali Khan conspiracy case, that the defendant wanted to hire foreign lawyers, but the then PM changed the law, putting certain bars on legal experts who could appear in High Court cases in Pakistan," said he. Those hurdles remain. But he said that the World is too small a place now and a local law firm can always seek advice from foreign affiliated reputed firm on the intricacies of the English Law.
In banking, more branches of foreign banks have closed down recently in Pakistan, than have been established. Some branches have been bought over by local corporate conglomerates. A senior banker was frank to admit that, in general, the level of knowledge about WTO among the otherwise immaculately dressed up bankers, was slack. "As I understand according to the WTO schedule, foreign banks would not be permitted to open up branches as was done in the past, but would have to establish a full-fledged bank in which it must hold a certain percentage of equity," he said.
Doctors here are more concerned about quackery than other distant issues, such as WTO. They seem to grapple with the practitioners of 'alternative methods of medicine', such as Homeopathic, Ayurbedic and Unani Systems.
"Now , that sufficient number of doctors are available and after promulgation of Medical and Dental Degrees Ordinance, 1982 it has become necessary that quackery should be banned by repealing Allopathic system (Prevention of Misuse) Ordinance 1962 and Rules of 1985", says the Pakistan Medical Association. Its estimates of 'quacks' run up to more than hundred thousand.
The information about WTO among doctors is as little as in other service sectors. A doctor, who has been taking care of peoples' ailments in one of the bye lanes of Kharadhar, when asked what he thought about WTO, fumbled for a while before wondering aloud: "It must be new; I haven't heard of that medicine as yet". But reputed doctors who often attend medical conferences abroad, (travelling at their own expense or those funded by friendly pharmaceutical firms), are loathe to think that a doctor practicing medicine in New York, even if with little success, would come up to open a clinic in Lyari in Karachi.
The same goes for the carpenter, the mason, the mistri, the mechanic, the tailor, the cook and all other service providers. In the short to medium term, WTO for them is neither a sea of opportunity nor a gathering storm.